A crowded county jail, continued discussions and debates on redistricting and a surge in children needing a foster home are all prompting legislation from lawmakers who represent Johnson County.
This week, state lawmakers began meeting again at the Indiana Statehouse for this year’s legislative session.
Multiple issues top their to-do list, including education funding, the opioid crisis and concerns with the Indiana Department of Child Services, but local lawmakers have also made proposals inspired by local issues and hope to be able to achieve them as well this session.
One of the top issues is jail overcrowding, which has been a problem in Johnson County and in several counties across the state.
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State Rep. John Young, a local attorney who represents parts of Johnson and Morgan counties, is proposing legislation he hopes will help with overcrowding at the Johnson County jail, which has been over capacity for months.
One issue officials have pointed to that has contributed to overcrowding at county jails has been a change in state law that required offenders convicted of the lowest level felonies to serve their sentence in the county jail, instead of a state prison. For example, during a study last year, 15 percent of the inmates in the county jail where there serving sentences for the lowest level felony.
Young’s proposal would allow a county to send offenders to serve their sentence in a state prison if the jail had been at 96 percent capacity for 30 of the last 90 days, he said. If the jail population goes back down again, that offender could be sent back to the county to finish their sentence, Young said.
The proposal wouldn’t fix the overcrowding issue, especially since the majority of people in the jail are there waiting on a court date or held without bond, Young said. But his hope is that it would provide temporary relief while counties come up with more long-term fixes, such as a jail addition or an expansion of their community corrections program that serves offenders on work release or home detention that officials in Johnson County have been discussing for months, Young said.
“There are a lot of proposals being floated,” Young said.
“Regardless, something needs to be done in the meantime.”
Young isn’t sure how much traction the proposal will get this session, especially with it being a short session with several other issues to handle, but he is hopeful some sort of temporary fix can be put in place to help counties struggling with overcrowding.
Redistricting, or updating the areas state and federal lawmakers represent, has also been a key topic of discussion recently, but whether a local lawmaker’s proposal will be considered this year isn’t clear.
State Sen. Greg Walker, who represents portions of Johnson and Bartholomew counties, is working on legislation that would set up guidelines for how new district lines should be drawn. The issue has been discussed by lawmakers and recently at an event at Franklin College, where part of the discussion centered on more public involvement in the process. Walker attended that event, and has continued researching the issue.
Under the constitution, state lawmakers are tasked with drawing those district lines. But lawmakers have also been asked to consider letting a public panel of residents create new maps after the next census, when redistricting is required to happen, to avoid gerrymandering, where lines are drawn with the intention of keeping a certain political party or candidate in office.
Walker would like to see the redistricting process become more open and include the public in that process, he said.
His goal is to create guidelines and parameters for what district lines should be based upon, Walker said.
“We really need to establish some criteria and a matrix, from which we can score, because there are some conflicting criteria,” he said.
Redistricting is a complicated and controversial issue that will take time to resolve, but his hope is to get started this session to work out the criteria that should be used to create districts. Currently, the guidelines have some parameters around population, but that’s about it, Walker said. He would like to see them include more criteria, such as boundaries that make sense geographically, and have a system for scoring proposals to see how well they meet the guidelines laid out, he said.
And with the Supreme Court taking up the issue, now is the time for Indiana to get serious about this discussion, Walker said.
“It’s a very complicated process and we have had bills in the past that haven’t moved,” Walker said.
“I don’t have a good answer now, but I understand the problem and why we are looking for a way to address that.”
Another complicated issue lawmakers are being asked to address this year centers on the Indiana Department of Child Services, after the past director resigned and criticized how the state was addressing the issues that department faces. State Rep. Woody Burton, who represents areas of Johnson County, would like to introduce legislation to try to make that state office more user-friendly for families trying to help by becoming foster parents, he said.
Burton’s proposal was inspired by an area family who had struggled with issues relating to becoming a foster family for a little girl. Burton got involved, and experienced a lack of communication and multiple roadblocks, he said.
He wants to see the state office have more transparency and accountability, especially in their communication with families, he said. His proposal would require employees to give families a one-page document detailing how to become a foster parent, which would be signed by the family and employee, with information on how to contact a supervisor if they weren’t satisfied with the state employee they had been working with, Burton said.
Burton’s goal is to help children find safe homes, which they are so in need of right now, he said.
And with more than 29,000 children in the state’s fostering program, he also wants to have the state seek help from churches, business and other organizations in spreading the word about the need for foster parents, he said.
“I want to help these kids; they need a chance,” Burton said.
Here are a look at other proposals from lawmakers who represent portions of Johnson County:
State Sen. Rodric Bray
- Adds additional requirements when county prosecutors seek to seize items in criminal cases.
- Adds requirements for schools for children with dyslexia.
State Rep. David Frizzell
- Allowing dental hygienists to practice without supervision in underserved rural areas.
- Rewarding nursing homes with good ratings with a higher Medicaid compensation rate.
- Giving rebates to filmmakers who come to Indiana.
State Rep. Chris May
- Allows townships to help pay for maintenance of cemeteries.
- Allows waivers for empty school buildings in certain cases from the requirement they be offered to charter schools.
State Sen. Jack Sandlin
- Would not allow schools to start session before the last Monday in August beginning with the 2019-20 school year.
- Allows counties to enter into an agreement together to operate a regional jail.
State Sen. Greg Walker
- Limiting the fees and interest that can be charged on payday loans.
State Rep. John Young
- Allows a person to be given multiple sentences, instead of one, when an accident involving reckless driving kills more than one person.
- Giving drivers arrested on a charge of driving under the influence driving privileges when going to work or school that kick in sooner after the arrest.
- Allows people who have been arrested to have the arrest deleted from their criminal record if they were never charged, instead of the record only being sealed.